Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Mother Nature, and other reactionaries

Back in the early noughties I would often spend hours arguing about the subtler aspects of left-wing theory with strangers on the internet. I would leave essays unfinished and my PhD supervisor waiting in frustration while I discovered and corrected grave ideological errors like economism, opportunism, and reformism in the e mails of my interlocutors. I would in turn be accused of, and angrily deny, such sins as ultra-leftism and hyper-sectarianism.
These days I still engage in quixotic debates on obscure corners of the internet in the early hours of the morning, but my opponents are more likely to be members of rival postnatal groups rather than rival Marxist groups, and we’re likely to be arguing about disposable nappies or measles immunisation rather than about the problems of the left.
My latest late night polemic was unleashed after somebody e mailed me links to several articles by William Sears, the prophet of attachment parenting. Sears is a fundamentalist Christian, but his claim that children need virtually continual attention from their mothers for the first eighteen or so years of their lives has won him an alarmingly large following amongst liberal young parents in Western nations.
Sears’ disciples are easy to spot: they tend to hobble about with their toddlers in slings, because their guru has denounced prams as an attack on the mother-child bond, and they usually have black rings under their eyes, because Sears warns against imposing regular bedtimes on kids.
In the articles I was sent, Sears insisted, again and again, that creches, separate beds for kids, sleep schedules, and weaning are ‘unnatural’, and must therefore be abandoned. In ‘traditional’ societies, Sears claimed, everyone is an attachment parent; it is only in the decadent West that mums and pas have fallen away from the true faith.
Sears’ conservative followers seem to consider attachment parenting a return to the godly American ways of old, whilst his hippy and hipster devotees seem to interpret his appeal to the ‘natural’ in New Age terms, and believe that by co-sleeping and slinging they are getting closer to Gaia.
Here, anyway, is the sermon against Sears that I sent out far too late one night last week:
It is remarkable how often contemporary discussions about subjects like childbirth and parenthood feature that strange adjective ‘natural’. Advocates of various models of child-rearing all scramble to appeal to biological necessity, and all claim that their models were the norm in pre-modern, 'traditional' societies.
This craze for the ‘natural’ would confuse pioneering feminists like Margaret Mead, Simone de Beauvoir, or New Zealand's Elsie Locke - for these advocates of then-controversial ideas like public breastfeeding, work creches, and free contraception, it was vital to prove that no such thing as a single legitimate way of creating families and raising kids existed.  
Mead's classic studies of family life in Samoa and New Guinea were intended to show the many, many different ways humans could organise activities like marriage, sex, childcare, breastfeeding, sleep, and habitation. Mead showed that societies which lived only a few days' walk from each other in New Guinea, like the laidback, egalitarian Arapesh and the violently competitive Mundugunor, had utterly different attitudes to the family and childrearing. It was a nonsense, she concluded, to imagine that our biology had given us a single natural way of organising families and raising kids. 
Mead's revelations helped liberate generations of Western women from the idea that the patriarchal version of the nuclear family, with its authoritarian working Dad and its stay-at-home mother, was the only environment in which kids can be properly raised. Thinkers like Mead recognised that appeals to the authority of Mother or Father Nature were inimical to human freedom. 
I am pleased to see that some contemporary feminists are returning to the approach of Margaret Mead, and attacking the notion that nature prescribes a single, unvarying mode of parenthood. The French intellectual Elizabeth Badinter has launched a ferocious attack on the bogus appeals to naturalism made by advocates of attachment parenting in her new book The Conflict.
If I understand her rightly, then Badinter is not arguing against attachment parenting, or any other form of parenting - she is simply denying that there is one 'natural' form of child-rearing prescribed for us by biology. 
Badinter's book can be seen as part of a wider argument against the notion that there is a single natural way for humans to behave. As David Moberg noted last year in a long and fascinating article for Dissent magazine, the social sciences have become the site of trench warfare between advocates of sociobiology, who insist that millions of years of evolution have committed human beings to behaving in fundamentally similar ways, no matter what landscape, climate, and culture they inhabit, and their opponents, like the great anthropologist Marshall Sahlins. 
In an interview with Moberg, Sahlins charged the sociobiologists with making the culture of American capitalism, with its emphasis on individualism and competition, into the essence of every human society or the past and present. Sahlins insists that there is not one but a ‘thousand kinds’ of human society. He's right.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]


Anonymous Anonymous said...

9:44 am  
Anonymous The Western Illusion of Human Nature said...

Follow link to intro to MS's most recent. He is pretty good for an old guy. Down with sociobiology!

11:29 am  
Blogger Sandra said...

I can imagine the internet discussions - I learnt to steer clear of parenting forums, eventually. Various aspects of attachment parenting really appealed to me, but I never assumed that was the only way to parent. I like the way you have pulled the central issue out of the mire - narrow versions of effective parenting or wide ranging versions from an inclusive perspective.

9:55 am  
Anonymous Scott said...

Hi Sandra,

I have also come to like a couple of 'techniques' - that doesn't seem quite the right word, does it? - associated with attachment parenting, in particular co-sleeping, which was normalised for me by my experience of Tonga households, where kids in their early teens sometimes still sleep with their folks! I'll often sleep with our two year-old if he's a bit restless, and I can't imagine having a small baby in a separate bedroom.

But when attachment parenting is turned into a dogma it can become dangerous. We attachment parenting have friends who have been driven to the brink of unreason by their lack of sleep!

11:42 am  
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